The law about ‘dangerous’ dogs is worse than their potential bite

Ten breeds of dog in Ireland are subject to restrictions such as muzzling and leashing

Hank is believed by his owners to be a Labrador-Staffordshire terrier cross-breed. They  were flabbergasted when he was impounded as a pit bull. Hank had not never done anything to indicate he posed a risk to the public. Photograph: Leonard Collins/Joanne Meadows/PA

Hank is believed by his owners to be a Labrador-Staffordshire terrier cross-breed. They were flabbergasted when he was impounded as a pit bull. Hank had not never done anything to indicate he posed a risk to the public. Photograph: Leonard Collins/Joanne Meadows/PA

 

It’s a not-so-shaggy dog story with a happy ending. Hank the dog, having been snatched from his Belfast home on suspicion of looking like a pit bull terrier, is expected to be returned to his owners this week. But the row over Hank’s treatment, news of which spread rapidly around the world as people rallied to the animal’s cause, has again raised a controversial question. Should dogs be treated differently – or even banned, and possibly destroyed – because they belong to a particular breed?

In the Republic, 10 breeds of dog are subject to restrictions, such as being muzzled and leashed when in public. “Dangerous dog” law in Northern Ireland, like that in the rest of the UK, goes much further. Four breeds – the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Braziliero – are deemed to pose an essential threat and can be seized and destroyed.

One of several problems with this type of legislation is in determining with any degree of accuracy whether an individual dog belongs to one of the outlawed varieties. In Hank’s case, he was eventually declared to be a “pit bull terrier-type” – a vague description which could nonetheless have consigned him to death – but after a behavioural assessment, it was decided to place him on an exemption register, because he was not considered to be a risk to the public.

Pet seized

Leonard CollinsJoanne Meadows

Collins and Meadows, who believe Hank to be a Labrador-Staffordshire terrier cross-breed, were flabbergasted. Hank had not been accused of aggressive behaviour. No bites, no fights, no injuries: nothing to indicate that he posed any kind of risk to the public. He is licensed, insured, micro-chipped and neutered, and he receives a special diet and prescribed medication for a skin condition. According to Collins, a computer science student, Hank is a friendly dog who spends most of the day snoozing on the bed. Yet he was taken by force, and held in isolation from his owners for several weeks, purely on the basis of his appearance.

Restricted breeds

Alan Tobin

Get beyond the yapping and howling, however, and it quickly becomes apparent that the dog-lovers are right: there is no clear scientific evidence that restricted or banned dog breeds are inherently more dangerous than others. Many dog-behaviour experts argue that breed-specific legislation is a flawed and illogical knee-jerk response to a complex problem, and is ineffective in reducing dog attacks.

Indeed, the number of people hospitalised across the State for dog bites actually rose by 50 per cent between 1998, when Ireland introduced the restricted dogs list, and 2013. So the existing laws are obviously not working.

Demonising dogs

Yet the converse is true too. Calm, authoritative owners mean calm, obedient dogs, regardless of breed.

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